Nurturing connections for your small business in challenging times

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

By Michelle van Schouwen

One has to say what one believes. One has to stand up for what is right. Some people one likes; some people one doesn’t. Then again, one – okay, YOU – are running a small business, and you need to have allies, customers, and supporters.

The year 2020 (now finally behind us) put a strain on a myriad of relationships. A seemingly endless pandemic, high levels of political division, a very rocky Main Street economy, and sheer exhaustion from it all have made many of us less tolerant of each other’s lapses than we might ordinarily be. Many of us have also, shall we say, found our voices, and are using them to express our opinions, sometimes even when it might be more prudent not to.

Example 1: A friend is undergoing major dental treatments. The dentist, his tools deep in her mouth, began talking about President-elect Joe Biden, of whom he disapproves very much. My friend feels quite the opposite. She feared that the short-term fate of her teeth depended on her silence. So she said nothing to the dentist. But will she recommend that dentist to anyone else? Since I first read about her experience on social media, it is safe to say the answer is no. In fact, this dentist, whose work she admires, has put a ding in his reputation among her many friends and social media acquaintances. And to what end?

Example 2: A vendor with whom we work expressed her concern about Americans getting relief checks, and explained to me, at length, that she worried about citizen complacency upon receiving said checks. “People should have the initiative to find a new way to make a living, to start over,” she declared, the day after Christmas, as COVID-19 surged and food lines lengthened in our small city. I left it alone, but I made a mental note that the vendor lacked something in empathy. I didn’t really need to feel that about her, did I?

Building connections is hard work. Maintaining them is even harder. We’ll focus on the latter.

-During the pandemic, you have probably faced difficult decisions and challenges. If you host customers on-site, you may have had to remind them to mask up, or to distance. It is possible to be tactful as you do so, even if you encounter customers who are not courteous. Tact may save you from bad online reviews and lost business.

-You may have had to chase payments. Your customers, except for the worst of them, are probably late in paying you because they are having financial difficulties. If you can work out payment plans or agreements, you may also save valuable relationships.

-You may have faced worker shortages, delays in production, or other troubles that have negatively impacted your service to customers. Under-promise and over-deliver, and apologize or “make it right” whenever needed. Don’t try to slip anything by your customers, hoping they won’t notice.

-And, as evidenced in the two examples above, talking politics or worldviews in many less-than-optimal venues can be counterproductive. Generally, you are not changing your customers’, vendors’, staff’s, or stakeholders’ minds when you pontificate, and you may well offend. You might be surprised, as well, by how much your customers, staff and stakeholders can pick up from even casual comments. You don’t need a political flag to make enemies in 2021.

-Need to have a place to be yourself? Gather a group of like-minded friends or business owners with whom you can safely air your concerns, frustrations, and opinions. Even within such a group, your ability to gauge and pre-assess what you say will be useful, but at least you can open up a little. Express your opinions in ways that are as positive and as non-adversarial as possible. Take up a sport or activity that helps you relax, burn off tension, or rejuvenate. Contribute to charities that further the causes you care about.

-Exceptions make the rule. Impossible customers, pervasively horrible vendors, terrible employees, even people in the community whom you cannot stomach are among the few bridges you may want to burn. Whenever possible, do so quietly, still tactfully, and without charring anything other than those bridges themselves. Don’t publish exposes of your business “enemies” in the local paper or fight with them online, as an erstwhile competitor of mine was wont to do. Being vengeful tends to boomerang.

-Keep your business above reproach. Be the company you will always be proud to claim as your own, the one with which your employees will be proud to associate and your customers pleased to patronize. It’s a lot of work to be excellent in every way, sure, but it is worth it.


Michelle van Schouwen is principal of Q5 Analytics, providing advocacy and communications for climate change mitigation and adaptation. See Q5 For 32 years, Michelle was president of van Schouwen Associates, LLC (vSA), a B2B marketing company. In 2017, van Schouwen Associates was acquired by Six-Point Creative Works, Inc.  of Springfield, MA. Michelle is available for speaking engagements on topics including her work on climate crisis mitigation and Florida coastal water issues. She speaks to business and student groups about marketing launches and entrepreneurship and works with start-ups to support their development.

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